Movie review by Greg Carlson
Mike Judge’s incisive observations of the foibles and humiliations of the workplace, school, and home have turned several of his creations – most notably the constantly quoted “Office Space” – into grimly comic fables for smart folks who suffer the fools with whom they toil, learn, and live. Since the phenomenal popularity of nearly brain dead underachievers Beavis and Butt-Head in the early and mid-1990s, Judge has satirized stupidity in a way that appeals to people of all IQ levels. His latest feature, “Extract,” continues in that direction, but its point of view swaps unappreciated employee for harried boss/small business owner.
Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynold, a food chemistry whiz who has parlayed his facility for flavorings into a successful little factory. Despite the entrepreneur’s stability and prosperity, Joel struggles with his wife’s lack of interest in sex, and one of the movie’s running gags shows Joel racing against the daily deadline when Suzie (Kristen Wiig) knots the drawstring in her sweatpants. Joel’s carnal frustration stretches to the breaking point when comely temp Cindy (Mila Kunis) takes a position on the extract bottling line. Of course, Cindy’s sudden appearance is no coincidence, and Joel quickly finds himself neck deep in moral quicksand.
Joel’s confidante Dean (played with stoned relish by Ben Affleck), a shaggy hotel bartender, insists that pharmaceutical experimentation is the answer to any problem, and also convinces his horse-tranquilized pal to hire a dim bulb gigolo to seduce Suzie so that Joel can pursue Cindy without guilt. The farfetched plan, which would be at home in any number of stage farces or situation comedies, backfires spectacularly, and Joel finds himself paying hard cash to be cuckolded. Such breathlessly impossible complications can be effectively rendered in the movies – Ingmar Bergman makes the improbable sexual zigzags of “Smiles of a Summer Night” look easy – if the filmmaker brings a delicate touch, but Judge’s methods are lumpier and more blunt, and also fail to respect Suzie as a fully formed character.
Had “Extract” been made during the 1930s or 1940s and been directed by Leo McCarey, Preston Sturges, or Ernst Lubitsch, the film’s female characters would at the very least have been rendered with greater dexterity that Judge manages for Kunis or Wiig. Kunis’ best scene is her (and the film’s) first, as she plays dumb and flirty to more easily rob a pair of enamored musical instrument store bozos. Following that clever sketch, we never learn another thing about her or why she does what she does. Judge is far more comfortable writing for men, as evidenced in the painfully funny scenes between Joel and obnoxious neighbor Nathan (the reliable David Koechner), who materializes at the least convenient times.
“Extract” lacks some of the careful pacing required of its feature length. Judge cannot seem to strike the right tone with the dinkuses, doofuses, and morons on Joel’s payroll, faltering as he shapes an attitude that seems to sympathize with them one moment and ridicule them the next. The film’s memorable workplace accident, in which an elaborate chain reaction triggered by a combination of carelessness and ineptitude results in traumatized testicles, makes for a visually amusing diversion, but “Extract” never quite transcends the mundane grind of its assembly line setting.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 9/7/09.